Grammar Lessons: Hyphens and Dashes

DashToday’s grammar lesson is brought to you by the letter M, because m-dashes are the best.

I know, I know… It’s em dash. You grammar nazi’s can settle down now. But really, I love em dashes. I’ll explain why very shortly.

First, to dashes and hyphens.

For those of you who don’t know, dashes and hyphens are pretty much the same… if you look at them really fast. In reality, they are very different in size and in usage. Knowing the correct way to use a dash or a hyphen can help in your writing, and in your understanding of the written language.

Before we get too much further, you need to be aware that there are two types of dashes: em dashes (my favorite) and en dashes. Also, I will be referring to the Chicago Manual of Style usage, which is used more in publications (your novels and such). Other styles will use the dashes and hyphens for the same rules, but they may differ in spacing between dashes and words.


Hyphens are perhaps the most widely known of the horizontal punctuation marks. A hyphen looks like this (just in case you’ve been hiding under a rock): – It’s a short horizontal line. Very short line.

Now, how do you use hyphens? How about to…

  • Divide words—such as when dividing one word between lines
    • Example: I found the prettiest alliga
      tor purse.
    • Rule: Divide between syllables
    • There are other rules, but we wont get into them here
  • Form compound words
    • Example: Sister-in-law
    • Example: Two-thirds
    • Example: Clear-cut
  • Join word units—like when joining adjectives (when one adjective describes the second adjective, which describes the noun)
    • Example: I need a new brown-dotted binder.
    • Example: Is she wearing six-inch heals?
    • Example: I took my four-year-old son to the park today.
    • Rule: Don’t use hyphens with -ly modifiers
  • Join prefixes, suffixes, and letters to a word
    • Example: Co-worker
    • Example: T-shirt
    • Example: Re-print (especially when used as a verb)
    • Example: All-encompassing
    • Rule: Use this rule with words prefixes such as self-, all-, and ex-, and use with suffixes such as -elect.
    • For words using prefixes such as anti-, non-, pro-, and co-, use the dictionary to know if the word is hyphenated or not.
  • Avoid double vowels and triple consonants
    • Example: Anti-intelectual
    • Example: Bell-like
  • Avoid ambiguity (can be very useful)
    • Example: Re-direct
    • Example: Co-op
    • Example-Re-unite
  • Write phone numbers
    • Do you really need an example?
    • Example: 888-135-4367

En Dash

En dashes. Not my favorite but almost there.

An en dash looks like this: –. It is about the width of a letter n. (You’re checking now, aren’t you?)

En dashes have two very important uses:

  • For number ranges
    • Example: Read pages 1–4.
    • This rock weighs about 15–16 ounces.
  • For geographical notations
    • I had a layover in the Minneapolis–St. Paul airport.
    • I lived in the Fairfield–Sacramento area for a over a month.

Em Dash

Now to my favorite: em dashes. Em dashes have one use, really. They set off phrases in a sentence. (Fun fact: That phrase is also known as an appositive.)

An em dash looks like this: —. It is about the width of a letter m, hence the name, maybe.

There are three ways that you can set off a phrase in a sentence: commas, parentheses, and em dashes. Commas, in my opinion, blend in with the sentence too much. When I really want a phrase to stand out, I use em dashes. It helps a lot with readability as well.

An few examples of em dashes would be:

  • My best friend’s dog–a real fighter when it comes to protecting his family–bit the burglar who had been prowling the neighborhood.
  • My husband–also known as Chef Scott–made me the most amazing taco lasagna tonight for dinner.
  • Robert–my brother–is always bragging about his new car and new house and new TV and new this.
  • You’ll never get anywhere if you do the dishes like that–especially if the water is turned off.

And that is today’s short lesson on dashes. Maybe we’ll visit them again soon, especially em dashes. I could go on and on about my love for em dashes.

One thought on “Grammar Lessons: Hyphens and Dashes

  1. Pingback: Towards vs. Toward | Writing on Banana Peels

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